Mental Activity and How the “Me” Exists
We began our discussion of the healthy development of the self through the lam-rim graded stages. We established the need to clearly differentiate between the conventional self and the false self, the one that needs to be refuted. When we speak about the self or “me,” it is an imputation on each moment of our experience made up of the so-called “five aggregates.”
Each moment there is the experience of some kind of mental activity. With this mental activity there is content – meaning there’s some object that is arising like a mental hologram – and there is some sort of knowing of that object. This cognition of something is based on light, vibrations of air, and so on coming in through the photosensitive and sound-sensitive sensor cells of the body. The brain and nervous system then transform the data of these signals into information, somewhat like a mental hologram of a sight, a sound, a smell and so on. That’s what we perceive. Overall, this process describes what knowing something is. So, mental activity entails cognizing an object through the creation of a mental hologram.
The arising of a mental hologram of an object and the cognition of an object are equivalent to each other. They are two ways of describing the same event and are not consecutive. It is not that first a mental hologram arises and then one sees or hears it. Whether it’s a thought or a sense perception, the same mechanism occurs.
In terms of the five aggregates, then, objects such as the sights and sounds that are cognized in the form of mental holograms are parts of the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena. Then there is the aggregate of consciousness. There is the knowing of the object with some sort of consciousness, such as one of the five types of sense consciousness or mental consciousness. Another aggregate, the aggregate of feeling, involves experiencing the object with some level of happiness or unhappiness. Additionally, to know anything there has to be a distinguishing of individual items within a whole sense field. Otherwise, for instance, sight is just a mass of pixels. However, pixels are not all that we are seeing. We are distinguishing objects within this field of pixels. There are also all sorts of emotions and other mental mechanisms that are accompanying this process, such as concentration, interest, attention, etc. These constitute the fifth aggregate, the aggregate of other affecting variables.
All of this is going on moment to moment, and each aspect of it is changing moment to moment at different rates. The “me” is part of all of this and present in each moment as an imputation on the entire network of everchanging aggregates, experiencing what is happening in each moment. It’s not that it’s somebody else that is experiencing the continuum of these aggregates; it’s just “me” experiencing them.
As for how to establish that there is a “me,” that the conventional “me” exists, this is complicated. The only thing that can establish its existence is that, by convention, there is the category or concept of a “me” that can be mentally labeled on the basis of an individual continuum of five aggregates and the conventional “me” is merely what this category refers to – individual instances of the conventional “me.” In addition, there is the word “me” that can be designated on this category, as well as a name, like “Alex,” that can also be designated on it and the conventional “me” is merely what this word and name refer to.
Now, obviously we’re not just a word, “me,” or just a name; yet, that name or the word “me” can be used to refer to this individual continuum of experiencing, this individual continuum of mental activity. Further, that “me” refers to someone. Who does it refer to? It refers to “me.” It doesn’t refer to you and it doesn’t refer to the table. It refers to “me.” That’s the conventional “me,” which actually exists and functions. We do things and experience things.
When we think about “me,” we think about “me” always through the same category “me,” although each time, each moment, what we’re experiencing is different. The so-called “basis for labeling” is changing all the time. So, although the category “me” stays the same and the word “me” stays the same, the conventional “me” that they are labeled on or designated on is different in each moment, depending on what’s being experienced as the basis for imputation of the “me.”
Let’s use the example of a movie. There’s the title of the movie, isn’t there? But the movie isn’t just the title. Each moment of the movie is different, but they are all still that movie. They are not moments in some other movie. The name of the movie refers to each moment of it. But now it’s this scene of the movie or that scene of the movie, and then comes the next scene of the movie. It’s changing moment to moment. The whole movie doesn’t play in one moment, does it? It’s an imputation on the continuum of the contents of each moment.
Although the conventional “me” is not a movie, it is in some ways similar to one. The name of the movie is “me” and it refers to the entire movie, the entire continuum of “me,” although each moment of “me,” like each moment of a movie, is different. But like the title of a movie, the word “me” refers to something, the conventional “me.” There is a “me.”
If we live our lives with that sense of conventional “me,” thinking and operating with this understanding, that’s a healthy self. On that basis, we take responsibility for what we do. We experience the results of what we do. It’s on that basis that we exert effort and willpower to actually accomplish something, such as getting out of bed in the morning. We get up in order to go to work or in order to take care of our children. That’s a conventional sense, a healthy sense of “me.” Please take a moment to affirm your understanding of the conventional “me.”
The Difference between Imputation and Mental Labeling
To understand more clearly, we need to differentiate the existence of the conventional “me” being established merely as what the mental label “me” refers to on the basis of the five aggregates from the conventional “me” being an imputation on the five aggregates. Last night, we had an exercise in which we tried to think of “me,” and we discovered that we couldn’t think “me” without a basis. There needs to be something representing that “me” in our thought, whether it’s simply the mental sound of the word “me” as we think “me,” or a mental hologram of what we look like, or some sort of feeling. This was to demonstrate that the conventional “me” is an imputation – more fully, an imputational phenomenon – that can only exist on a basis, the five aggregates, and can only be known with some part of that basis simultaneously also appearing. As an imputation, the conventional “me” can be perceived non-conceptually. We can see ourselves in the mirror. We don’t just see the colored shapes of a face, we see “me.” Seeing ourselves when we see our face in a mirror is not optional.
The category “me” – not the conventional “me” itself – is mentally labeled on the basis of the five aggregates. It is through this category that we fit the person we see in the mirror together with all the other instances in which we have cognized “me.” Categories are objects exclusively of thought. They can only be known conceptually. When we look in the mirror, we see ourselves. When we see ourselves, we may or may not think, “That’s ‘me.’” If we do think that, it’s through a category and we are mentally labeling the category and perhaps also the word “me” onto what we see in the mirror. In contrast to this, we don’t have to think, “That’s ‘me,’” in order to see ourselves when we look in the mirror.
How do we establish the existence of “me?” All we can say is that it is merely what the category “me” refers to on the basis its being mentally labeled on the five aggregates or what the word “me” refers to when designated on that same basis. However, we are not the word “me” and not just a mental hologram or a feeling. The word “me” is a conceptual designation on the basis of something that represents “me,” like the image of the face we see in the mirror.
Do you understand a little? We talk so much in Buddhism about mental labeling and yet it’s not that easy to understand. Maybe this overview makes it a little bit easier. We’ll discuss this once more toward the end of this seminar.
The Conventional “Me” and an Impossible “Me”
Now, how does that “me” exist? There’s an actual way in which it exists, and there’s an impossible way in which we could imagine that it could exist. But it couldn’t possibly exist in that way, because it’s impossible. I used these descriptive examples last night:
- “I’m one of seven billion people and there’s nothing special about me. I have to interact and live with everybody.” That’s correct.
- “I am the most special person in the universe, and I should always have my way. I’m always right.” That’s impossible.
What are we talking about in these two examples? The topic we are talking about is the conventional “me,” which does exist, but the two examples are two different ways in which we might consider the conventional “me” to exist. The first is the actual way and the second is impossible. The actual way refers to a manner of existence that corresponds to the way we actually are. The impossible way of existing doesn’t correspond to any way of existing that is real. It is our projection. It is a fantasy that “I am the center of the universe,” or that anybody could be the most important in the world and should always be right and have their way. It doesn’t correspond to any way of existing that could possibly happen.
These are two ways of considering the manner of existence of something, using that same basis, the conventional “me.” What is false actually is not the conventional “me.” What’s false and to be refuted is the incorrect manner in which we imagine that this conventional “me” exists. The false “me,” then, is a conventional “me” existing in an impossible manner. There is no such “me” like that. That “package” of a conventionally existent “me” and an impossible way of existing – that package, which we are calling the false “me” – doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as this kind of person existing at all.
Of course, we can analyze even more precisely and deeply than this, but this level of analysis is enough for our present discussion.
Who Experiences Sickness?
To summarize, then, what we want to refute is this impossible way of existing of the conventional “me.” If we understand this, if we make this fine distinction, then questions like the one asked yesterday, “Who experiences physical sickness of the body, the conventional ‘me’ or the false ‘me?’” won’t arise. There is no false “me,” so the false “me” can’t experience anything. But we experience the sickness and the pain. Nobody else does. This is the conventional “me.” It can’t be anybody else.
Really the only issue is how do we conceive of the “me” who is experiencing the sickness? We can think of that “me” in a realistic, possible manner. For instance, “I’m not the only one who has ever experienced this sickness. There are many others who have experienced it. It has arisen from causes and conditions, but those original causes and conditions are no longer occurring. As this sickness is affected by subsequently arising conditions, which change from moment to moment, it too is going to change from moment to moment. Because there is no newly arisen cause that could freshly infect me and restart the sickness, this sickness will eventually come to an end. It is impermanent.” On that basis, we have the patience to deal with the sickness in a healthy way.
Consider the inflated projection of this scenario: “I’m the only one in the universe who has ever had this sickness. Poor me, I’m so victimized and everybody should feel sorry for me and should pay special attention to me because I’m so miserable.” What’s the result of this kind of attitude? We’re absolutely miserable. This is an example of thinking in terms of an impossible way of existing and experiencing a sickness with this incorrect notion of ourselves. But regardless of how we conceptualize our experience of a sickness, it is still the conventional “me” who is experiencing the sickness. Nobody else is.
It’s very important, when we discuss this topic of the conventional “me” versus the false “me,” that we don’t conceive of them as the good “me” and the bad “me.” It’s not that this false “me” exists and is the bad “me” and it’s stupid and no good. Or, this is the good “me,” the conventional one. When we think in these terms, we’re misleading ourselves about how we would deal with this issue of being sick in a constructive way and how we would overcome suffering.
The main concern is what we really think of our “self” and how we imagine that we exist. The issue is not “me.” There is a “me.” Okay? Think about that. This is more about our attitude. If we think the problem is a false “me,” something that we have to kick out of our head, that’s pretty weird. That’s sort of like some space invader who’s inside our head, some monster we have to kick out. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about changing our attitude about ourselves through understanding. That’s what Buddhism is all about.
Let’s use a different terminology as an example. Suppose we think the problem of a false “me” is like having an ego, which we conceive of as a false “me.” We might think, for instance, “I just have to get rid of my ego; otherwise I’m on an ego trip.” We think that having a big ego is really the problem and now we have this campaign to get rid of the ego. This is a complete misconception of the Buddhist path. Many of us, coming from a Western background with a little bit of understanding of psychology according to Western theories, will superimpose this belief about the ego onto Buddhism and think that this is what we’re talking about. Again, it’s not. We’re getting rid of an attitude, a misunderstanding of how we exist. Don’t think in terms of ego and non-ego and this sort of terminology. This only causes confusion.
Digest this for a moment, please.
Moving from a Western to a Buddhist Conceptual Framework
I think it will take quite a while to de-condition ourselves from analyzing and thinking in terms of a Western conceptual framework. As newcomers, we approach the Buddhist teachings with what we have previously learned in our lives. We may have a Western conceptual framework in terms of psychology or a Western religion. There are many different conceptual frameworks that we have acquired prior to studying Buddhism. Naturally we try to make sense of what we learn about the Dharma teachings in terms of the conceptual frameworks that we are familiar with already. However, this can lead to misunderstanding.
To counter misconceptions, we need to learn the Buddhist conceptual framework. That’s why in the study of the Buddhist teachings there are many lists, such as the fifty-one mental factors, the five aggregates and so on. They’re not useless information. They actually provide the conceptual framework within which we can analyze and understand the deeper, more profound aspects of the Buddhist teachings. To try to understand the Buddhist teachings outside of this conceptual framework just doesn’t work.
Obviously, we can’t just begin our study with this complete new conceptual framework. The optimal attitude to have is to accept that our initial understanding of the Buddhist teachings through our Western conceptual framework is simply provisional. We will need to revise it as we go deeper in our studies and not be too attached to it. In order to revise our way of thinking, we have to not be attached because otherwise we will cling to one viewpoint and insist that it is the only way to understand.
Each conceptual framework, though, can be valid. We’re not saying that the Western conceptual frameworks for analyzing, such as psychology, etc., are stupid or invalid. They are valid. However, there can be many conceptual frameworks for understanding the same phenomenon, or basically for understanding our experience of life. If we really want to benefit from the Buddhist teachings in the most advantageous way, we need to approach them, on a deeper and deeper level, through the Buddhist conceptual framework itself. Even within the Buddhist conceptual framework there are the different tenet systems, which lead us to progressively deeper understandings. The conceptual framework is just a useful tool. But we need to choose the appropriate ones.
To briefly review what we covered, the conventional “me” does exist. But the only thing that can establish that it conventionally exists is that it is merely what the category or concept “me” refers to when mentally labeled on the basis of ever-changing moments of our personal experience. There is nothing findable on its own side that establishes its existence – although we have not yet started our discussion of this; it will come later. Then we discussed how, regardless of our previous conceptual framework of how long the self exists, when viewed seriously, we saw that we think in terms of an eternal self, as in the example, “I am dead.” We imagine that we are dead forever. This conception of ourselves as eternal might not be very clear in our minds, but actually that is what we think.
The Initial Scope Lam-Rim Teachings
Now we’re ready to begin looking at the lam-rim teachings. How do we work with the conventional “me” that is eternal? How do we build it up in a healthy way so that we can actually overcome our problems and get rid of suffering? That’s what Buddhism is all about, isn’t it? To deal with suffering and get rid of it, we need a healthy sense of a conventional self. Again, we need a healthy sense of self that takes responsibility for his or her life and that has some sort of willpower to direct its actions. If we don’t have this, we wouldn’t even get up out of bed in the morning to take care of the kids or go to work. If that’s the case, then how much more so do we need a healthy sense of self in order to progress on the spiritual path to attain liberation and enlightenment?
The Precious Human Life
To begin our discussion of the lam-rim, we start with the precious human life. If we have an eternal sense of self, then this opportunity of the precious human life that we have now is very, very rare. After all, we can be reborn in any life form and, considering the number of insects in the world, the number of humans is very small. It’s incredible and fantastic, actually, that we are not only humans, but we are interested in and open to spiritual development. Therefore, we need to make best use of our human life.
With these thoughts about the precious human rebirth and our appreciation of it, we develop a constructive attitude toward ourselves, “How fortunate I am; how incredible that this life is what I am experiencing. I’m experiencing a precious human rebirth.” With this kind of attitude, we start to have a positive attitude toward ourselves.
One friend of mine, a Buddhist teacher, has his students do a very powerful exercise for appreciating our faculty of sight, if we have it as part of our precious human life. He instructs his students to wear a thick black blindfold for an entire day, so that they live the entire day as a blind person. When his students take the blindfold off and can see, they experience firsthand great appreciation for sight. It’s a very intense exercise actually.
In Berlin, we have so-called “blind restaurants” in which it is 100% dark, and people eat their meal in absolute darkness. There was also a museum exhibition of a marketplace set in a pitch-dark space. People had to try to go shopping without seeing. Even imagining this, we can start to really appreciate what we have, even if just the basic sense of sight. But what if there were no opportunities for education? What if the whole society was barbaric, or there were absolutely no spiritual teachers and no support for any spiritual interest. For example, some of you here in Latvia are old enough to compare the opportunities available during the Soviet period and the opportunities available now. Thinking like this, we realize how fortunate we are.
With all of these examples, we’re talking about the conventional “me.” This involves a very positive way of looking at ourselves. In the Buddhist training, when we begin to develop a healthy sense of “me,” we start by appreciating how fortunate we are. What an opportunity we have to do something positive with our life, especially in light of the fact that we’re going to continue on even after this life.
Discriminating Awareness and Entrusting Ourselves to Ourselves
How do we actually think about our precious human life? How do we actually meditate on it? Here, in this meditation, we’re thinking about the conventional “me.” Remember, to think about “me,” we need to have something appear that represents “me.” We can have a mental picture of ourselves, or whatever we want it to be. It doesn’t matter. It could just be the sound of the mental word “me.” Now, how do we exist? The main issue is to determine what is a correct or an incorrect view about that. We use what’s called “discriminating awareness,” to discriminate between what is correct and what is incorrect.
What is correct is that all of us here in this room are not blind, for example. If some people listening to this lecture at home happen to actually be blind, they can use the example of not also being deaf. We are free of being blind temporarily, however, because we could lose our sight as we get older. Right now, we have our sight. We can see and we are not blind. We can discriminate between what we don’t have and what we have: what’s absent is being blind and what’s present is the ability to see. Similarly, we are not in a gulag; we are free. This is the type of discrimination that we are using here.
Now, we can bring in the two main attitudes that we have in the teachings on how to entrust ourselves to a spiritual teacher. One attitude is firm conviction in the good qualities of the teacher. In the context of the precious human life, we’re talking about firm conviction in the fact that we have these incredible freedoms. We have sight; we are not blind. We have freedom; we are not in a gulag. There’s a whole long list of freedoms and opportunities we have from the teachings on the precious human rebirth.
We think, “Yes, I really do have freedom, at least for the time being, from these kinds of impediments. I do have the opportunity of what’s available such as the faculty of vision and freedom of not being in a gulag. Yes, I really do.” We need to be really very convinced of this. That’s one part of our attitude here when thinking about “me.”
The second attitude in the context of a healthy relation with a spiritual teacher is appreciation of the kindness of the teacher. In meditations on the precious human life, it’s not so much the kindness, but the benefit that we have because of being free from these kinds of impediments and having our life be enriched with opportunities. We take the time to really appreciate this. To put it in simple language, “I really have this opportunity, and this is fantastic.” That’s the way in which we focus on “me” having this precious human rebirth, “I really have it and wow! It’s incredible, fantastic. I really appreciate it.” Think like this for a moment.
Remember the most important quality that we have is that we’re not closed-minded about the Dharma and the spiritual path. We’re open-minded and think they’re the most fantastic things that we have in our life.
With this kind of appreciation, we start to counter this “poor me” attitude that we have when we think of ourselves as existing in an impossible way, an incorrect way as a so-called “false me.” “Poor me, I can’t do anything.”
It’s really very interesting to examine this “poor me” attitude. “Poor me, I don’t have a girlfriend.” “I don’t have a boyfriend.” “I don’t have children.” “Poor me, I don’t make enough money.” We’re thinking of all these qualities that make “me” into a “poor me.” What does that do? It makes us miserable, doesn’t it? Whereas if we think in terms of how fantastic it is that we’re not blind, for example, or that we’re not paralyzed or completely closed-minded, it is a completely different outlook. We have a much more positive attitude toward the conventional “me,” and this starts to build up a healthy sense of “me.”
Bringing in Kindness, Gratitude, Love and Compassion
Let’s bring in another factor from the Dharma teachings. The whole art of studying the Dharma is that the more that we learn, the more able we are to put the different pieces of the Dharma together in many more creative and beneficial ways. In this regard, let’s include some advice from the teachings on the seven-part cause and effect meditation for developing bodhichitta.
How do we do this? We were thinking about appreciating the kindness of the spiritual teacher and connecting this with the precious human life. We appreciate the kindness of the fantastic opportunities that we have. Now, in our internal search engine we put in “kindness” and then we look for teachings about kindness. What are they? One example is realizing that everybody has been our mother in some previous lifetime and has been extremely kind to us when they were our mother. Let’s see if we can fit these two Dharma pieces together.
We see, in the seven-part cause and effect meditation, the step after remembering the kindness of motherly love is that we have a certain feeling arise. Usually it’s translated as wanting to “repay that kindness,” but this sounds as though we have a debt and we’re guilty if we don’t repay it. That’s a misconception. Actually, the feeling and attitude is that, “You’ve been so kind to me and I’m just really grateful.” Because we feel so grateful, we’d like to be kind back. Our state of mind is not that we have a debt; instead it is one of gratitude. We are really grateful for our precious human life, “I appreciate that I have this precious human life, I’m so very grateful.”
But to whom do we feel grateful? According to Buddhism, it’s not that some higher power has given us our precious human life. It’s not that someone else gave it to us, although of course our parents conceived us. But our parents merely provided the circumstances for our precious human rebirth. If we believe in rebirth, we realize that it was our behavior in previous lives and the positive karmic force it built up that has resulted in our being conceived by our parents so as to have this precious human life. So, in fact, we have given ourselves this precious human life. Analyzing like this, we feel grateful to ourselves.
In the seven-part cause and effect meditation, what automatically comes when we feel this great gratitude and appreciation in the context of recognizing everyone as having been our mothers? What arises when remembering the kindness of the motherly love we’ve received? It’s heart-warming love. Basically, anytime that we see anyone it just warms our heart. We think, “Oh how wonderful to see them. It would really be terrible if something bad happened to them.”
Likewise, we can apply this kind of feeling to the meditation on the precious human life. We can think in terms of how fantastic it is to have all of these opportunities. We appreciate and feel grateful for all of them and grateful to ourselves in previous lives for having built up the causes for having them. Because of that gratitude, when we think of ourselves, we have a positive attitude of heart-warming love. We feel good about ourselves and would feel terrible if we messed up and wasted these precious opportunities.
In these meditations for developing bodhichitta, what follows is love and compassion. Love is the wish for others to be happy and have the causes for happiness. Compassion is the wish for them to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. Likewise, here in the context of our meditation on the precious human life that we have, the positive warm attitude about ourselves that we feel, from appreciating so much the freedoms we have and being so grateful for our opportunities and what we have done to bring them about, leads to our having love and compassion for ourselves. We really would like to be happy and have the causes for happiness and to be free of suffering and the causes for suffering. This leads to taking some responsibility for our development in order to bring that about. Do you follow that?
Being Mindful of Death
Of course, the situation that we have, these opportunities, won’t last forever. We’re going to die. That’s reality. We’re going to lose these positive conditions. Because of that, we really have to take advantage of them while we have them. It’s like we’re at the cafeteria and it closes at two o’clock. We’d better take our meal before then because, after that, it will be closed and there will be no food available. Basically, we need to take advantage of the window of opportunity before it closes.
We don’t even have to think exclusively of death. There’s also the suffering of sickness and old age. We need to use this present opportunity that we have before we start to lose our memory, sight, hearing, energy and so on. When we’re in our twenties and thirties, old age seems very far away, but at my age – I’m sixty-eight – then we really start to take seriously how many years of productive life remain. We never know what’s going to happen.
Contemplating this, we develop a sense of caring about what happens to us and what we experience, not just now but also in the future. This is very important in terms of the development of a healthy sense of self. We have a positive attitude toward ourselves because we appreciate what we have and think, “I would like to be happy now, but also in the future because I’m concerned about what will happen. These opportunities that I have now won’t last.” While the cafeteria’s open we want to take as much food as we can, don’t we? Stock up for the future because it might not open again.
In the Soviet times it was like that, wasn’t it?
You had to stand in a queue for half an hour to get a cup of coffee and even longer to buy some meat.
Right, so when it was available people would try to buy as much as possible because they never knew when it was going to be available again.
Bringing in What Happens after Death
Now, what about after death? If we believe in Buddhism or Hinduism, or any of these systems that believe in rebirth, it’s quite possible that we could have a worse rebirth where we wouldn’t have these opportunities again. If we really take seriously what it would be like to be a cockroach, for example, it’s pretty frightening. Anybody who sees us just wants to step on us. Or if we believe in Western or Middle Eastern religions, we could possibly experience eternal damnation in hell. This is also not a very nice thought. Or, if we believe that we become a nothing, that’s quite frightening for most people, because it really is falling into the unknown of what it would be like to be nothing. “Now I am nothing” – well, there’s still “me.” That’s also pretty frightening actually.
As previously mentioned, we can also think in terms of future generations. Perhaps people will just have a bad memory of us, or we will leave all sorts of problems for future generations. This also is not very nice. None of us would like to be remembered as a horrible person, would we?
This whole meditation in terms of worse rebirths after we die can be very helpful in terms of, again, developing this healthy sense of “me.” We would really like to prevent an unfortunate rebirth. We are grateful for the opportunities that we have, we have this warm feeling toward ourselves, that we want ourselves to be happy. As a result, obviously we’d like to avoid something horrible happening to us after we die. Clearly, we want to do something to prevent this.
Furthermore, if we feel helpless and hopeless, that doesn’t lead to a healthy sense of “me.” Rather, we can take responsibility for what happens to us, and that’s where refuge, what I call “safe direction,” comes in. It’s not hopeless and we’re not helpless. There is something that we can do to avoid losing this opportunity and not gain a precious human life again. In the next session we will discuss safe direction and what we can do to avoid worse rebirths or a worse future.
With our remaining short time, let’s take some questions.
Difficult Situations for Preventing Suffering
Talking about the alleviation of suffering of others, if for example we are faced with a situation where the only way to alleviate the suffering of a hungry bird is to feed it a fat worm, how do we perceive that?
This is not an easy situation, obviously. When it’s a case of do I save the life of my child or do I save the life of the parasitic worms in my child’s stomach, then it’s clear that we save the life of the child. That child can do so much more to benefit others in the human birth it has than the mental continuum that is currently in the form of the worm can do as a worm. In this example, it’s quite clear how we make the discrimination. But when it’s an example of a spider and a fly, or the bird and the worm, then it’s not so clear what we would do or how we would choose.
We look at examples from the Buddhist literature. How did Buddha in a previous lifetime deal with this kind of situation? In a previous life, the Buddha met a hungry tigress with starving cubs. What did Buddha do? Buddha fed himself to the hungry tigress. Asanga cut off a piece of his leg in order to feed a dog. These are the examples of great bodhisattvas. Then, we need to ask ourselves, “Am I at that level that I can do that?”
If we think about it in terms of what we can do now, we would first consider the karmic effect of saving the life of the worm or the fly and, in addition, of preventing the spider or the bird from building up the negative karmic force of killing. These are two positive things in terms of karma. If we do nothing when we could do something, then the fly loses its life or the worm loses its life, and the bird or the spider builds up that negative karmic force. By doing nothing, is there anything positive that we’re doing? We’re preventing that spider or the bird from starving, although perhaps it could somehow find food elsewhere.
When we have a question like this, we need to be able to analyze. If we have the conceptual framework within Buddhism for being able to analyze a situation like this, we can figure out what to do. What we’re using are the teachings on karmic consequences, cause and effect. What would be the karmic consequence of one choice or the other choice? Then we discriminate between the two to determine which produces a heavier negative karmic consequence and which produces a stronger positive one. That’s how we decide. I’ll leave it up to each of you do the analysis on your own.
Self-Cherishing and a Healthy Sense of Self
When we think about the benefits of a precious human rebirth, and then we develop this warm loving feeling toward ourselves and become concerned about our well-being, isn’t it going in the direction of self-cherishing?
Yes, it definitely is going in the direction of self-cherishing, but that’s not a fault here. When working with a healthy sense of self versus an inflated, unhealthy sense of self, we have to build up a healthy one first before we can deconstruct an unhealthy one. This is why it’s always recommended not to teach voidness to children or young teenagers who haven’t really established a healthy sense of self. Likewise, we shouldn’t teach it to people who are seriously emotionally disturbed or to people who don’t have a healthy sense of self. This is because if we start to deconstruct any sense of self when there isn’t a constructive healthy sense of the conventional self, we’re left with nothing. This can be very damaging.
When we go through the lam-rim as a beginner, we are building up this self-cherishing, we’re building up a strong sense of “me” and so on. This is okay because in the later stages we will deconstruct whatever inflations there are. But we will have a healthy basis that is still there. Remember, as I explained, that healthy basis is the conventional “me.” It’s our attitude toward that conventional “me” that we need to work on. First, we have to affirm that we have a conventional “me” and develop a positive attitude toward it before we start to get rid of the incorrect way of considering it.
As mentioned last night, there are two levels of going through the lam-rim. One level is as a beginner without the Buddhist view of voidness, etc. The second is with a Mahayana Buddhist view and some understanding of voidness. So, after we’ve gone through the stages once, we go back and go through the whole process again. We go over the graded stages again and again and again. Each time, we go deeper and deeper.
Most of us approach lam-rim as Dharma-Lite. In doing so, we don’t really think of future lives or believe in them. It’s just to benefit this lifetime and, as I’ve said, going through the lam-rim development with that scope is very helpful. It’s in the realm of Buddhist science and Buddhist philosophy. We’re not getting into religious beliefs, such as in future lives.
But if we introduce future lives, look what happens, “I want a precious human life in the future because I want to be able to continue on the path.” But how are we thinking of this? Perhaps we’re thinking of it in terms of “I want to be with my teachers again” and “I want to be with my friends again.” There’s all this attachment. Do we conceive of ourselves as being a tulku (a reincarnate lama) and think, “They’re going to find me again and I’m going to be reunited with all my friends and my teachers and I’ll just continue.” It’s certainly not like that, although it might be our initial level of working with this material. In these examples, there is a great deal of attachment and self-cherishing in the way that we conceive of aiming for that precious human life again. Provisionally, it’s okay, because at least we’re thinking in terms of doing things to avoid worse rebirths.
It is only in the intermediate scope that we start to think, “Even if I’m with my old friends and teachers again, there’s still going to be problems.” We have to develop renunciation of our attachments. That’s the next step. It’s only when we’ve gone through the whole lam-rim development and return to the beginning that we can start to develop the wish for avoiding worse rebirths and getting better rebirths, not because of our attachment to our teachers and friends in this lifetime, but more purely. On a more advanced level, we would think, “It takes a long time to attain liberation and enlightenment, so I need many human rebirths, precious human rebirths, to build up all the positive force and understanding required.” This is another level. Then we’re not thinking in terms of benefiting the self out of self-cherishing. But that happens when we go through all this development at a more advanced level.
Having a Sincere Motivation
One of the problems is that we’re introduced to this material much too quickly. We’ve already heard that we need to get rid of self-cherishing. We’ve heard a little bit about voidness as well. But we have neglected really working on this very basic initial level of going through the lam-rim and sincerely feeling these motivations. It’s actually very hard to sincerely feel these motivations. We can say the words, but it doesn’t really move our hearts.
It’s a bit more stable and realistic to work on developing a healthy sense of self. If we actually get to the point where we sincerely are thinking about benefiting future lives, it will be with self-cherishing at first, and that’s okay. “I want a precious human life so that I may always be protected by my teachers,” and all of that kind of thinking. When we really have developed further, then we’ll have the ability to apply the understanding of voidness. However, don’t try to apply it from the very beginning, as there is great danger of falling to nihilism.
As long as we understand that this level of working for future lives with self-cherishing and attachment is provisional, then it’s okay. We don’t take it as the real ultimate thing. But taking this as a provisional step allows us to more easily feel it sincerely. I think it is really very important to sincerely develop the motivation that “I am working for my future lives. I’m doing something about it.” Later we can think about the how we exist in these future lives and so on, and then we can refine our understanding.
Let me give an example from my own life. I’m very involved with creating this huge website for studying Buddhism. I’m really hoping that because of all the work that I’m putting into it, in my next lifetime I will have a precious human rebirth and I will find it on the internet really quickly and be turned on to the Dharma. I’m hoping that when I am really young, I will really be drawn to it. Such thoughts are really focused only on the benefit I will receive from the website. Other people might benefit from it and that’s a great thing; but I’m really concerned that I find it very quickly and easily, and then I’ll be able to continue it and hopefully work on it again and take it further. Certainly, there’s attachment there, but it also allows me to have this motivation to work toward improving my future lives very sincerely. Finally, I can start to think that maybe I’m at a certain level of initial scope motivation on a sincere level.
What I’m saying is that trying to get these motivations to be sincere is really the first step and the most important step. Then we can refine our understanding of the reality of the self and so on in terms of our sincere motivation. However, if our motivation is not sincere, and we skip getting it sincere and jump to work on refining it, what are we refining? We’re left with nothing. If we rush into thinking that we should have no self-cherishing because there is no self; well, if there’s no self, why should we do anything to try to get future human rebirths for a self? Then we’re left with nothing.
These are important points to consider. Please try to digest them.